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Reviewer:   Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Sam Raimi
Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi, Alvin Sargent
Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Thomas Haden Church
Length:   140 minutes
Released:   050412
PG-13 for sequences of action and violence
"The film takes three bad stories and tries to fashion a narrative out of them. It can't be done."  
If the first "Spider-Man" had a script as weak and muddled as the one for "Spider-Man 3," it's hard to believe it ever would have been made. But with the series a worldwide success -- and especially coming off "Spider-Man 2," which was superb -- the filmmakers can afford a weak entry without having to worry about being punished. The only ones who may feel punished are audiences.

"Spider-Man 2" was a textbook example of how to make a sequel: Deepen it, make it funnier, give it more heart and come up with a strong villain and a good story. "Spider Man 3," by contrast, shows how not to make a sequel. The film takes three bad stories and tries to fashion a narrative out of them. It can't be done. It also takes established and warmly regarded characters and has them behave in ways that make no sense in terms of what we know about them. And, perhaps to give the movie the illusion of scale, it contains many empty conversations -- scenes in which characters dither and nothing happens. Word to the wise: Whenever Rosemary Harris shows up as Peter Parker's beloved old aunt, it's safe to run out and get popcorn.

Even the special effects take a step backward. Body movements are awkward. The elastic springing of Spider-Man as he vaults and swings from the tops of buildings looks unnatural, too often like something on a computer screen. The effect isn't helped by director Sam Raimi's choice to film a lot of the hand-to-hand combat in close-ups in quick cuts, which sometimes makes it difficult to track what's going on. Only the Sandman origin scene is a standout. It is a poetic moment in a movie that otherwise is not interested in such things. The CGI in the scene is some of the most effective ever in a film. If only the rest of the movie had this tone. If only…..

The fight scenes feel like they take a little from the first movie, a little from the second, and mix them together. They're more formulaic than exhilarating, and there's nothing in Spider-Man 3 that comes close to the train sequence from Spider-Man 2.

The climactic battle is a disaster. It's not exciting and it requires two contrivances too excruciating to ignore (one involves Harry’s butler offering a valuable piece of information that would have saved us all a lot of trouble if he would have mentioned it two movies ago, the other involves Sandman's eventual fate). It's unforgivable that the film's last action scene should be so vastly inferior to the first one. The special effects aren't even all that impressive. There are several instances in which it's all-too-obvious that Spider-Man and his nemeses are computer generated. This is sloppier than anything in either Spider-Man or Spider-Man 2.

Little imperfections in the effects wouldn't matter if the other aspects of the film were working. But "Spider-Man 3" screws up even some of the more reliable elements, most notably the relationship between Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and his girlfriend, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). Things start well. Mary Jane has a singing part in a Broadway show, and Peter goes to see her. The reviews are awful, and that's a potentially interesting and satisfying direction: Dunst, who does her own singing, really does sound amateurish. But the movie doesn't build from that in a coherent way.

The script hints that maybe being Spider-Man is going to Peter Parker's head, but it doesn't commit to that course. It suggests that maybe Mary Jane is becoming jealous of Peter's success, but it doesn't follow through on that, either. It just keeps feinting in various directions, and in the process it distorts Peter and Mary Jane's relationship. At times, the plotting is so flimsy that it rolls out the oldest and least forgivable trick in the book: It depends on Peter and Mary Jane's not talking when they most certainly would, not telling each other things they definitely would say. That's just cheap, and it betrays these characters who've been lovingly built over the course of two features.

Three stories are set in motion in the movie's first minutes: (1) Harry Osborn (James Franco), Peter's old friend, decides to follow in his Goblin father's footsteps, and becomes Spider-Man's nemesis; (2) The criminal (Thomas Haden Church) who killed Peter's saintly uncle (Cliff Robertson) is transformed, through a process of disintegration and reintegration, into an un-killable Sandman; and (3) An alien substance -- black and elastic -- comes to earth in a meteorite and finds its way to Peter's apartment.

It's all marginally interesting, but there's one thing missing: a real villain. Harry Osborn is a confused young man, not the essence of evil, and Sandman, though a destructive force, is as mournful as Lon Chaney Jr.'s Wolfman. He's not a driven adversary. He's more like a sad mope.

The most promising plot element is the black elastic substance, which attaches itself to the body as a second skin and emphasizes whatever latent, dark traits its wearer might have. But Raimi and his associates let that element lie dormant for almost half the movie's running time, when a good story might have been fashioned from that concept alone. Epics are made from stories that demand the epic treatment. A story has a certain scale and grandeur, and the act of doing justice to it results in an epic. That's the right way to do it.

The wrong way is to decide you want to make a big movie and then, without much to say, you proceed to throw every possible idea at the screen in the hope it'll work out. That's what Raimi does in "Spider-Man 3," which is so clumsy that at times one can sense the filmmaker artificially slowing down one story in order to pursue another. Maguire and Dunst are appealing as always, even though they'd be better off with stronger material.

Actually, the whole world of the "Spider-Man" films is appealing, which is what saves this entry from disaster. At 140 minutes, it's not a difficult movie to sit through. It's just difficult to enjoy. Spider-Man 3 is a bit of a chore. The effective moments require a lot patience to uncover and some of what has to be shifted to get to them is not worth the effort. People love trilogies because it's said that good things come in threes, but this series would have looked better and felt more satisfying had the filmmakers stopped at two.

SPIDERMAN 3 © 2007 Sony Pictures Releasing.
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2006 Alternate Reality, Inc.


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